Press release: Not giving up – Sea level rise, adaptation and migration in the Marshall Islands

  • 2019•12•06     Madrid, Spain

    Photo: Kees van der Geest

    Madrid, 6 December 2019 – Sea levels are rising faster and higher than previously expected. Long-term sea level rise will vary greatly depending on emissions, but could reach nearly 4 meters by 2300 if emissions are not reduced.

    Extreme events at the coast, such as hurricanes, tsunamis and floods, that used to occur once a century, will hit many coasts every year by 2050, even under low emission scenarios. This is especially problematic for low-lying islands, such as the Pacific Islands, which will suffer from disasters and see a loss of livelihood as sea water salinizes the soil and freshwater resources, hampering farming activities. Some islands could become entirely uninhabitable because there is no more access to fresh water.

    “Sea level rise is here to stay. Even in a wonderful, but completely unrealistic zero emission scenario, we will see the consequences of sea level rise,” said Dr. Zita Sebesvari, a senior scientist at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). This is because the sea level rise we are experiencing at the moment is the consequence of global warming that started from emissions released decades ago. Because large bodies of water like oceans warm up slowly, changes in sea level lag behind warming of the atmosphere.

    According to the recently released IPCC special report on the Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, for which Sebesvari was a lead author, by 2050 sea levels will rise by 20 to 40 cm globally. There will be regional differences, but all parts of the world will be affected. After 2050, however, we could see anything from stabilization, if we stick to the emissions goals of the Paris Agreement, to the aforementioned 4 meters by 2300, if we continue with the current emissions.

    “What the report shows is that both mitigation and adaptation will be necessary. We have to reduce emissions to avoid the more extreme scenarios, but we also have to prepare for the extent of sea level rise that we cannot avoid,” said Sebesvari.

    As one of the lowest-lying island nation states in the world, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is particularly vulnerable to the rising sea level and other climate hazards, and it is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, such as salinity intrusion and an increase of extreme weather events.

    In the last 10-20 years, more than a third of the Marshallese have moved abroad, mostly to the United States. “Marshallese cite many reasons for moving abroad, predominantly work, healthcare, and education,” said Dr. Kees van der Geest, a senior migration expert at UNU-EHS. “Climate change is a big concern to them, but is not yet seen as a reason to move.”

    However, a new study by van der Geest, together with colleagues from the University of Hawaii, does show a correlation between climate impacts and migration rates at the household level: Those who experience more severe climate stress, especially drought and heat, also have higher migration rates.

    Despite this finding, the study also shows that most Marshallese fiercely resist the idea that climate change could make their home uninhabitable and they would need to leave their islands someday. They think that adaptation is possible, and with support of their government and international donors, they are finding ways to adapt: Recently installed fresh water tanks on the islands will ensure the availability of drinking water even with increasing salinity intrusion.

    Migration can in some cases be a good adaptation to climate change, but according to van der Geest’s research, only 14.9% of respondents felt that emigration would be a good solution. The majority were critical of migration in response to climate change and more optimistic about the future habitability of their islands.

    “As a Marshallese, I disagree with the narrative that says, the Marshall Islands are sinking and the Marshallese all want to move abroad,” said Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a climate envoy from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. “It is perfectly fine to migrate if that is what you want to do, but many of us don’t, and we want to have a choice. Climate change should not force us to leave our home.”

    Jetnil-Kijiner thereby confirms what van der Geest and colleagues found in their study as well: The Marshallese call on the international community not to give up on them and their islands. “If you only focus on migration, you are giving up on climate action and on doing something to change what is happening to our islands. We are not willing to accept that,” said Jetnil-Kijiner.

    As the world leaders gather for COP25 this week, it is countries like the Marshall Islands that urgently depend on solutions and ambitious climate action.

    “Adaptation must be considered as the first and preferred option,” concludes van der Geest. “When migration is the only way out, it turns into forced relocation, an option that is not attractive to many Marshallese families.”



    Further readings

    Sea level rise is inevitable – but what we do today can still prevent catastrophe for coastal regions. The Conversation:
    Nguyen, Minh Tu, Renaud, Fabrice G., Sebesvari, Zita and Nguyen, Duy Can (2019). Resilience of agricultural systems facing increased salinity intrusion in deltaic coastal areas of Vietnam. Ecology and Society, 24(4).
    Van der Geest, Kees, Burkett, Maxine, Fitzpatrick, Juno, Stege, Mark and Wheeler, Brittany (2019). Marshallese perspectives on migration in the context of climate change. Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Policy Brief Series. IOM.
    Van der Geest, Kees, Burkett, Maxine, Fitzpatrick, Juno, Stege, Mark and Wheeler, Brittany (in press). Climate change, ecosystem services and migration in the Marshall Islands: Are they related? Accepted for publication in Climatic Change.

    About the United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS)

    Based in Bonn, Germany, UNU-EHS conducts research on risks and adaptation related to environmental hazards and global change. The institute’s research promotes policies and programmes to reduce these risks, while taking into account the interplay between environmental and societal factors. Research areas include climate change adaptation by incorporating insurance-related approaches, environmentally induced migration and social vulnerability, ecosystem-based solutions to adaptation and disaster risk reduction, and models and tools to analyse vulnerability and risks linked to natural hazards, with a focus on urban space and rural-urban interfaces. UNU-EHS also offers the joint Master of Science degree programme “Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security” with the University of Bonn and hosts international PhD projects and courses on global issues of environmental risks and sustainable development.


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    For more information, or to set up an interview with the experts, please contact:

    Arianna Flores-Corral (in Madrid)
    Press officer
    United Nations University
    Institute for Environment and Human Security
    Tel: + 49 176 68681458

    Dr. Nadine Hoffmann (in Bonn)
    Senior Communication Associate
    United Nations University
    Institute for Environment and Human Security
    Tel: + 49 228 815 0284